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William Burroughs: My Part in His Downfall

It was a savage summer for famous writers. They were either being rolled by their former wives, dissed by their former publishers, or busy getting dead in the heat of Kansas. We had seen this kind of thing before: F. Scott Fitzgerald never went to Kansas, but Zelda was the roller-in-chief; the closest Hemingway got was Kansas City, where he learned to write and dreamed of being the youngest person ever to die. But believe me, the summer I’m talking about saw hot war break out between one kind of self-consciousness and another: Our minds were light and our hearts were dark in that August of 1997, those perfect weeks, that restless year, before Bill got impeached and Diana died.

I was in New York (writing and presenting a documentary film about Jack Kerouac) and I’d just found a large bloodstain on the carpet of Room 611 of the Gramercy Park Hotel. Never mind, I told myself, this is America, the maid is no doubt from a despotic country and will know what to do. So I put on a clean white T-shirt, stonewashed jeans, and spread cherry lip balm on my Scottish lips: It’s best to be prepared for sex in New York, not because you expect any but because people don’t trust you in New York if you don’t look as if you’re ready for sex at any time. I got in a taxi and went to see Adele Mailer. She looked like a cool Hispanic granny with a handbag and an unforgiving eye. “I’ve just come from the Actors Studio,” she said, and immediately I thought of Kim Stanley doing Bus Stop to a crowd of fully famous students and note-takers and Strasbergs. Adele had written a book about being married to Norman Mailer and she kept using the letters “O.J.” to describe her relationship with him, or, more accurately, her relation to the incident in 1960 when Norman stabbed her with a kitchen knife during one of their parties. I asked Adele if she felt better now that she’d written the book. “I’ll feel better when the money starts coming in,” she said. Then she started talking about her old flame Jack Kerouac and the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s. “Jack,” she said, “was lousy in bed.” Then she said Kerouac didn’t like the taste of a certain spermicidal cream, a detail I’ve never quite forgotten, and then she said he wasn’t enough of a man for her. She added that Allen Ginsberg once told her that if he ever went straight she would be the woman for him. “Oh, Adele,” I said, “I bet he said that to all the girls.”

Robert Giroux was sitting in a sort of wooden throne at the American Arts Club. A lovely old man with a plume of white hair, I thought he showed the accumulated wisdom of a life spent getting the commas right, publishing Eliot and Lowell, and not giving up on the little things. He sat with a watery-eyed old-timer and a young editor from Farrar, Straus called Ethan. Giroux told me a story, off-camera, about Djuna Barnes and James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions. He said that Barnes was complaining about the lack of royalties from that novel of hers—what is it, Nightwood? “Anyway, she complained to Laughlin, and the publisher said to her that he had been taught at his mother’s knee to be a truthful person, and he had not held back a single penny from Djuna on her book. She went away. The next day Laughlin was walking down the street when he saw Barnes coming toward him. She came right up to him and stopped: ‘How’s your mother’s knee?’ she asked.” Giroux’s friend then told how when Ezra Pound was stuck in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, some visitor asked him what he had thought of Djuna Barnes. He sat thinking for a long time. “Well,” he said finally, “she ain’t cuddly!”

People are always asking me nowadays what the essential difference is between fiction and non-fiction.

When I got to Lowell, Massachusetts, John Sampas was already waiting. He smoked long cigarettes and wore sunshades inside and out, like Hunter S. Thompson, which made you think he might be a little impressed with his current job running the Kerouac estate. The house used to be owned by an old lady who was the first person in the town to own a telephone. Her number was 4. Sampas said her ghost still comes rattling from room to room, nowhere to go. His sister Stella married Kerouac late in his life, and when Kerouac died she inherited everything, including his sick and controversial mother. That morning, Sampas had gone to the local bank to get some manuscripts (that’s where he stores them) and he showed them to me in the sitting room. One of them was just a note scribbled on the back of an envelope—Kerouac telling a friend he had gone out to play football.

When we were standing outside the Lowell high school a guy came up to talk. He had known Kerouac. The guy’s brother had been a star athlete—the street we stood on, Koumantzelis, was named after his brother. The guy spoke of a mad trip he had made with Kerouac down to New York one time. He said they were drunk and high the whole week; then there was “the black thing.” We asked him what he meant. He said that Kerouac was always getting into fights with black guys; he’d insult them or argue with them in bars and sometimes he’d get beaten up. Koumantzelis said he thought this was what got Kerouac killed in the end, down there in Florida in 1969. He said he thought a couple of those young rednecks Kerouac was hanging out with would have got him beaten up good and proper. He remembered Jack phoning him a few days before he died. He said he had gotten licked in a bar, and he couldn’t remember much, but he knew that his stomach was sore and that the whole of life was bad as hell. When I spoke to Carolyn Cassady (the wife of Kerouac’s hero, Neal), she said Kerouac had stopped being a writer when it came to those late-night calls. “It was too sad,” she said. “Just filth. That’s all he spoke.”

People are always asking me nowadays what the essential difference is between fiction and non-fiction, and I’m now ready to give a full and frank answer: In fiction, nothing is made up. There’s a truth at the end of every line and, sometimes too, in the curve and weight of every word. At the end of every line of reportage or memoir—if it’s any good—a doubt is raised and a question is left unanswered: Was it really like that? With good fiction we are never inclined to ask if it was really like that. Now, take this piece you are reading. If it was a short story, as many of you may imagine it to be—a tale rolled out by a fictioner, conjured on a group of days from the ambitious heart of some new voice in American fiction—would the piece you are reading satisfy you less, or more? If all of this was confected—Adele Mailer, the Gramercy Park Hotel, Scottish, Ezra Pound—would you feel cheated, or flattered? When I tell you that the speaker in this piece of memoir is real, that the events described here actually happened, are these useful or necessary pieces of information? Do they add anything? Let me tell you this is a problem not only for readers. Writers, too, begin to doubt their own relation to reality—and, for many of us, our talent begins its life with such doubtings. The summer I’ve described to you happened. It happened in the order I’ve described and included the spoken words I’ve given you.

The next and decisive part of the narrative involves my arrival in Kansas. I realized, when I started writing this, that I’d told the story so many times in so many bars that it might be worth checking that I hadn’t in fact made it up in the first place. My checks have proved decisive and gripping: I didn’t make the story up, but I have changed the story again and again in small ways over time. My journal entries from 1997 tell a more serious and alarmed story; my gleeful renderings of the narrative since then have added historical weight to the soul of the piece, as well as numerous comedy touches, more personal involvement, further absurdity, and the renowned literary agent Andrew Wylie. The story of the story is not better than the story itself, just truer, whatever that means, and it has the virtue of taking us further into the realm where the question of reliability provides its own theatrical narrative.

Lawrence, Kansas, on a hot day. After it was all over, when I first told the story back in London, I’m sure I said it was the hottest day since records began. There is no evidence for that—it was just a very hot day. I arrived with a BBC television crew at a motel on the outskirts of Lawrence that had no food except donuts. At the Brisbane Writers Festival two years ago, I’m sure I said no food except chewing gum, and at a comedy festival that took place in a boat on the River Thames, I said it had no food except boiled soap and bath towels. We were in Lawrence to interview the novelist William Burroughs. When I told the story during the Democratic National Convention in Boston (to the editor of this journal), it was quite late at night: We were in J.J. Foley’s Bar and Grill (or maybe the bar before that) and I told my interlocutors that I had spoken to William Burroughs several times before the interview was to take place in Lawrence. This has always been a crucial part of the story. It always gets sighs and laughs. “Kerouac’s mother was a witch,” I drawl. “She made him drink. And she drank herself,” I say, quoting what Burroughs said to me.

“Don’t say much more,” I said to him, “because I want you to be fresh for the cameras tomorrow.”

Now, despite being asked by everybody, I’ve never written the story you’re reading until now. I always said I was keeping it for something, but now I realize the reason I held back is because I thought I might perjure myself. The story is true—true-ish—but what had my enjoyment of the initial story added to its nature over time? A word to the wise: When you’re pitching a big story over whiskey, it helps to throw in a few pieces of self-deprecation. The implication of my conversation with William Burroughs is that he wanted to tell me everything I could handle about Kerouac and his mother, but I, silly thicko limey visitor and pro-forma etiquette bum, stopped him for the sake of a better performance next day. The full effectiveness of my technique will be witnessed shortly.

No one anymore is interested in the news that William Burroughs is dead.

William Burroughs was about to die, or, as a local sound-man attached to our crew preferred to put it, “the Beat god gone and died up on your ass.” At the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto one time I’m sure I added Burroughs saying, “You’re the boss” at the close of our telephone conversation. Well, I’ve checked the original journal. I’ve checked the television transcripts for references, but there’s nothing. I can hear Burroughs saying Kerouac’s mother was a witch in my head and I can imagine the telephone in my hand. But it didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened or it would be in the journal and others would remember it. Over the years of telling the story it has become as real as air to me.

What happened was that Jim Grauerholz, who was Burroughs’s manager, had suggested on the phone that William thought Kerouac’s mother had made him drink. Then Wayne, a friend of Burroughs with an evil grin and a spanner in the back pocket of his dirty jeans, told me in the middle of a cornfield that Burroughs said how destructive Kerouac’s relationship with his mother had been. My journal from the time notes Wayne saying, “Burroughs said it was pure hell.” Wayne took us in a shed filled with smashed stuff and engine parts in order to get a beer (or, rather, we took our beers in there to get him) and I noticed a television screen that was smashed to smithereens. “Oh, that was William,” he said. “He shot it last Thursday.”

I add no spin to Wayne’s character. Paradoxically, that is often what we mean when we say someone is like a character in a novel—we mean that no embellishment is required; the person exists so completely that no effort need be expended in describing or rendering them real. They exist. Well, Wayne was not a character in a novel but he had the force of one; his actuality came as a bit of a surprise and I knew that journalism could only struggle to catch him.

I have a strange tic of the imagination that would doubtless have led me straight to reform school if I’d ever confessed it to a child psychologist: Every time I’ve got a lethal weapon in my hand I spend a second or two picturing what it would be like to mow everybody down with it. Wayne offered me his gun at the edge of a cornfield. He set up a tin can and invited me to shoot it down. Now, I’m a pussy, so there was no way I was coming out of this one well, and I briefly contemplated killing everyone before I began firing at the can and missed it four times before clipping it with the fifth shot.

The motel was bad and hot during the night. When I told the story at a New York dinner party, I think I said the air-conditioning was broken all night. I don’t think that’s right. The air-conditioning was doing its best. I was tossing and turning with the shame, no doubt, of using five bullets to hit a can only ten feet away. The phone rang. It rang in that way that only Americans telephones do—as if someone somewhere is having a breakdown. It was the film’s director. He said I should come to the foyer as something bad had happened. When I told the story to Patrice Hoffman, my French publisher, I’m sure I reminded him what film crews were like, and said I’d told the director to stop bullshitting and put down the phone. In fact, I got my shirt on and descended in the elevator immediately.

“Burroughs is dead,” said the director. A person was there from the Burroughs world, not Jim Grauerholz, but usually for the purposes of narrative ease I say it was Jim. “He died at the hospital. He was taken in a day or two ago.”

“So he was in there when we were with Wayne yesterday?” I think I asked.

“Yes,” the director said.

Then something happened which I know to be true. The Burroughs person began saying he thought we should come to “William’s house” and bring the cameras. Now, for my sins, and for everybody else’s sins too, I’m a Catholic, and I do not think it’s a good idea to poke cameras into the corners of the bereaved. My director, on the other hand, is a director: He knew there wasn’t another BBC crew within a thousand miles, and he didn’t want to pass up the chance to film Burroughs-in-death (as if anybody would have noticed the difference).

“No way,” I said.

“William loved the BBC,” said the man. “Come over to the house. He would’ve liked that.”

I sometimes forget to tell this part when I’m telling the story. For a start I don’t want the BBC to get too much credit, and secondly, when I’m telling the story I’m wary of things that—wait for it! wait for it!—seem made up. It just doesn’t seem very credible that William Burroughs should love the BBC. But that’s what the man said.

“I’ll bring some flowers,” I said, like Teresa of Avila, while Dave the director was semaphoring behind the Burroughs man for all he was worth. Every gesture Dave made was saying, “Don’t do this to me.”

“All of you come,” said the man.

I think I said okay or Dave said okay. Anyhow, one of us said okay and we made arrangements to come to the house in Learnard Avenue at one o’clock.

Reality is insufficiently itself to command the complacency of the imagination. Wallace Stevens didn’t say that, though he might have said it, give or take a few words. What we can be certain about is that he meant to say it. Reality is nothing without the imagination, like lungs without breath. The story about William Burroughs’s death in Kansas is the story of something that actually happened; it is also the story of something that actually happened to me. That actuality has been tampered with and yet the story is no less real. It is more real. It has gone from being the-day-Burroughs-died to the-day-Burroughs-died-with-me-hanging-around to me-telling-the-story-about-the-day-Burroughs-died-with-me-hanging-around and now we are here, perhaps finally, at the place where all our favorite narratives are due to find their most ringing version: the-story-of-me-telling-the-story-about-the-day-Burroughs-died-with-me-hanging-around. Storytelling depends on the idea that there is a hierarchy of interest: Burroughs being dead was news (it was already playing over the radio as we drove to his house at 12:45), but it is a hierarchy that changes. No one anymore is interested in the news that William Burroughs is dead. And no one I know is any longer interested in the story of Burroughs being dead with me hanging around. But I am desperate now, and my only hope, in this sad world of vanishing interest in my anecdote, is that this will be the final and most decisive telling: the über-version, in which the story of William Burroughs’s death at the age of eighty-three is nothing compared to the human business of me trying to tell the story of how I existed on the margins of this story and that I myself have become a margin on which stories fight for balance.

The house was definitely red. There was definitely a Merry Pranksters-style van painted with graffiti in the yard and a pond with fat goldfish swimming around. I asked the crew to hang back long enough to let me do my Catholic bit with the flowers. I laid them on the porch—there were three, four, already—and I pressed my face up against the flyscreen. There was a certain humming coming from inside the house; through the grayness I could see numberless cats flying in every direction. The humming was taking place at the other end of the room: chanting more than humming, moaning more than chanting. During an interview with a Stockholm newspaper I’m sure I once said the participants had their hands raised. They did not. Some of the people in the Buddhist circle have remained constant from the days when I first told the story: Jim Grauerholz and John Giorno, the New York poet who was also, unfamously, the man asleep in Andy Warhol’s film Sleep. Others have come and gone from the circle: The rock singer Patti Smith was there as far as my notes tell me, but I can’t picture her anymore, and in all subsequent versions, including one I related a couple of months ago in London to an aging dowager under a long screaming pope by Francis Bacon, the figure most uncomfortably present in the circle was the agent Andrew Wylie.

Now, I’ve never met Andrew Wylie. I’ve always remembered him because he has the same name as the protagonist of Sir Andrew Wylie of That Ilk, a novel by the nineteenth-century Scottish genius (and Coleridge’s favorite novelist) John Galt. A number of my friends are represented by Wylie, and one of them worked in his London office, but I have no relationship with him at all. I must have known that Wylie represented Burroughs, and known too that he had, in the days immediately after Burroughs’s death, sold some final writing of Burroughs’s to The New Yorker for a significant sum. That is just standard publishing gossip, but it must have entered my plan, because very soon after that I had Andrew Wylie sitting in the circle in Burroughs house while I stood at the flyscreen. Fiction had to somehow make up for a deficiency in the scene as it was being prepared for its distinguished career of retelling: Wylie was needed to bring the wonderful absurdity of the scene into its fullest dimensions: Somewhat gratuitously, I’d often have Wylie wearing a rather fat kipper tie during the ceremony that sent William Burroughs’s soul out of the house. I’ve become so convinced of Andrew Wylie’s presence in the scene that I can quite easily see his expression in the gloom; I can see him later standing on the porch in a white suit dabbing his brow, looking solemn. But Wylie seems to have been in New York that day. In fact, as any of my delighted listeners could have ascertained, Wylie could not have got to Lawrence, Kansas, by one o’clock the day after his client died because you are unlikely to make the journey in that time. But I refuse to give up on Andrew Wylie: He is there in my perfect version of the story and he will remain there.

Then a doubt enters about my doubts. My journal from the time suddenly tells me this: “I saw a guy through the flyscreen. I thought it was Andrew Wylie, the literary agent in New York. They were moaning.” So maybe Wylie was there after all. Maybe he came to see Burroughs before he died. Of course, as with all these things, I could, at any time during the last nine years, just have called Andrew Wylie to ask him, but that would have been, well, tactless, and not at all done in the spirit of my story. It is my story after all, and though I wouldn’t want to deny anyone their own account of their own experience, I feel quite possessive about Andrew Wylie’s whereabouts the day after William Burroughs died. He was in my story, humming or moaning or chanting.

The goldfish had a magic realist kind of life under the cool water of the pond and I wanted to join them. The crew stood around smoking cigarettes—in Spain I wanted to say they were joints, but I stopped short, recognizing how my thinking was drifting toward the teenage—and I spoke with one of the Burroughs people about the writing and the life that was over. He said one or two things about the hospitalization, then said that he had spoken to Gregory Corso that morning. Gregory wanted to come to Kansas for the funeral—Patti Smith was encouraging him—but he was worried about his methadone. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” someone chimed in, with a smile, “there’s a ton of it here. Bill used to hoard it up in the garage just in case there was a nuclear war.”

I’m afraid I’m not good enough to have made that up. Our summer had given itself to certain freedoms of mind, to an exhilaration that can come with freewheeling in and out of lives that were either going or gone, and we made hay. One seldom feels that same proximity of stories to the life of their telling, and sometimes I imagine that the whole summer was invented just for me to speak of it later, that there was no house and no TV crew and no Kansas either, just my own imagining of them. I promised myself a story, a factual one, when we set out on that journey in search of the storyteller’s friends. But I had no notion of how it would give rise, as it has done, to my own unreliable narrator, a voice who lives inside me and who suspects facts and is happy to parse the life around him to suit his narrative instincts. He’s my friend. I promised you a story and the promise never changes; it’s the story that changes and improves like wine. That is why I am a novelist. Driving out of Kansas that day we left clouds of dust and laughter over the mysterious fields and a lone train made its way from Kansas to the world. We all disappear in the face of the facts. As Virginia Woolf was fond of saying, “Nothing is simply one thing.” And so we drove out of Kansas without an inch of film.

Or did we fly?